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For Women Traveling to India: Preparing for Safe and Culturally Respectful Immersion

Solo Woman Travel in India

Train Travel Safety Tips and Advisories

“How in the world did I get here?” It was 2 a.m. I was in a mosquito-filled police station and jail in Agra, India, home of the world’s most beautiful and famous monument to love. I had walked there, willingly, with two men in khaki uniforms and berets.

In India, train travel is the way to go. It’s an efficient way to visit all corners of the sub-continent and certainly economical. On this particular night I had splurged on second class for my shortest train ride in India yet (four hours), yet it had cost no more than $4 (I paid $12 for a 32-hour ticket that had taken me from the northeast corner in Kolkata to the southern state of Goa.)

So far I had wracked up a total of over 60 hours on the Indian Railways as a solo female traveler without much incident. This particular night, despite my usual alertness and precaution, I found myself in a second class berth on an uncrowded train, alone with a middle-aged businessman from a small village near Agra.

It is usual for the passengers on trains in India to be curious about foreign travelers—staring, whispering, talking loudly, are quite common. Those who are comfortable with their English are likely straight out ask how and why a single woman should be traveling alone in India. Wonderful conversations and invitations can develop over the course of a long train ride in this way. But in India females are usually accompanied by a father or son, and female travelers often raise eyebrows and questions.

This night, as usual, the passenger across from me, the businessman, was curious as to my origins and purposes. He explained his business to me and I explained my solo travel while we ate the dahl, roti, and yogurt served on the train. I expressed to him an anxiety about not knowing when my stop would be, since they did not announce the stations, and he congenially offered to alert me when the time came, should I nod off to sleep. Disarmed by our nice conversation, my bags all chained up and locked as is highly recommended, and full of food, I drifted off.

I awoke to the sense of hands on my blouse. Frightened and in denial, I slapped him away and slid to the opposite end of the berth to close my eyes tight in pretend sleep while I thought of what to do. Within minutes his hands landed on my upper thigh, and this time I leapt up from the berth and created a commotion.

When I finally got off the train at 1 a.m., it took me 45 minutes to get the stationmaster to take me seriously enough to file a complaint and another 15 minutes of haggling with him to send a policeman to escort me to the station. The final motivation for him to do so was a call I placed to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.

Tips and Advisories

I would never recommend that females stop exploring India by train, and I would spend 1,000 more hours on them to take in such a bewildering and beautiful country. The following tips and advisories are for female travelers especially, but also for the male solo traveler, to ensure healthy and incident-free travel aboard the Indian railways:

Unlike many other destinations, in India if you are a solo traveler you will often be the only Westerner on a train.

Ask for the upper berth (it will say “UB” on your ticket stub) when buying your ticket—it has a far greater degree of privacy and you can stretch out any time, even in the middle of the day.

Avoid the lower berth or middle berth; you will not be able to stretch out until everyone decides to go to sleep.

Purchase all tickets as far in advance as possible. It is a good idea to purchase a few legs of your journey all at once while you are at one major station so you are assured a seat on the date that you want.

Do not make prolonged eye contact with any males; it can be seen as a sexual invitation.

Although you will be asked for your sex at the ticket office, this will not generally mean that you will share your berth with other females.

Sleep and ride with any bags that fit right on your berth—use them as footrest and pillows. All travel documents should be in contact with your body at all times.

Study all the passengers around you after the train leaves the station. Do not shy away from pleasant conversation because you are afraid for your safety, but do not feel a false sense of ease because you feel like you know them.

Do not plan to change your clothes while on the train. An ankle-length cotton skirt, dark colored t-shirt with sleeves, and a long cotton scarf is ideal.

Pre-arrange all hotel information at your intended destination before boarding your train, especially if you will be arriving after 5 p.m.

Do not get off the train to stretch, even at prolonged stops at major stations. Stay within eye contact of your berth at all times.

If you feel uncomfortable in any situation on a train, do not hesitate to change your seat immediately, with or without first asking the conductor. If you sense trouble, move first, ask later.

If you find yourself the victim of a crime, report the situation to the conductor and request to speak to a police officer. Gather the names and addresses of any witnesses.

If you are the victim of a sexual assault in India, report it to the authorities immediately and don’t give up or be surprised if the men in charge to not take you seriously. Place a call to the nearest embassy of your country of origin as soon as you can, and don’t be shy about telling the authorities that you are doing so; it gets them to act. You will be asked by the police to write a full report of the incident and, if possible, identify the perpetrator at the station. In my case, this took up the entire morning of my day in Agra—a price I was happy to pay.

Don’t shy away from independent female travel—just be careful.

For complete timetables, names of trains, and planning ahead, visit www.seat61.com/India.htm.